It’s the quintessential pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps American story. Denice Torres is a gay Hispanic woman who grew up in a town with high unemployment, low literacy, and a penchant for intolerance. She came from limited financial resources, worked as a janitor in a steel mill, washed dishes at the local hospital, and was told she’d never get into college. Objectively, not many would say this was a formula for success.
But Denice rewrote the formula, ultimately becoming the president of two multibillion-dollar companies, a highly sought-after leader, board member, mentor, author, and devoted mother. The alchemy of turning hardship into success—coal into career and personal gold—is her forte. Torres takes the worn-down bootstrap mythology of rugged individualism and turns it into a vibrant track record of service, leadership, courage, resilience, and giving back. It’s an aptitude she believes anyone can acquire with the right mindset.
“Pain can be a calling,” says Torres. “I’d come home from the steel mill and the soot would turn my bathwater black.”
With her hard hat, steel-toe boots, and a lunch box tucked under her arm, she’d ignore the male steelworkers’ negative comments and make her way to the women’s lounge. “The other women didn’t really pay attention to me.” She adds, “It was one of the loneliest periods of my life.”
What helped her survive were the monthly issues of Billie Jean King’s WomenSports magazine containing stories of female athletes who were breaking the mold. She’d slip the magazine into her lunch box and read it on breaks like it was the Harvard Business Review. “Those stories were where I learned the fundamentals of resilience and getting the most out of the life lessons of girls who hadn’t come from much but went on to accomplish great things,” says Torres.
The pain of the isolation and mind-numbing work at the steel mill was compounded by the color-coded segregation that existed at the hospital where she washed dishes on the weekends. “If you were a janitor, you’d wear one color of pants; if you were a nurse or doctor, you’d wear another. No one really mixed,” says Torres, who yearned to work in an environment where you weren’t judged by the color of pants you wore. These experiences motivated her. “It lit a fire in me,” says Torres, who saved her hard-won earnings and applied and got into college. Later, she won a scholarship to law school. “The fear of not making it was incredibly powerful fuel,” Torres admits.
Using challenges as opportunities is a trait that Torres passes on to her teams and mentees. Challenges, naysayers, and even “wrong” choices are not a sign of something being wrong; they’re a tool that can be used to make you stronger. If you’re on the wrong path, change it. It’s just more information.
Torres quickly realized that practicing law was not a good fit for her. Instead of resigning herself to reaping the questionable bounty of her college investment, she took a leap of faith and quit her job after a year of practicing law. She tried a variety of jobs and stumbled upon marketing. “I loved it,” says Torres. Even though she lacked experience and training, she convinced a company to hire her by telling them, “If I don’t do a great job for you, I’ll fire me.”
She went on to business school. She was on the path; she had found her calling.
There is a lot of talk about finding your passion and your why. Sometimes it’s almost as though it should be simple. For most people, it’s not. Torres’s refusal to compromise on the thing that matters most (as the poet Mary Oliver called it, “your one wild and precious life”) is what makes her a great leader.
“My past definitely informs my leadership style,” says Torres. This is true of her successes as well. Refusing to let people pigeonhole themselves, she asks her teams and mentees to bring all of themselves to work. By doing so, she has inspired creativity, loyalty, and passion. She creates an environment of psychological safety so that people can take risks and thrive. In doing so, the company prospers and the overall culture benefits.
The coal is the gold. By having to confront her fears about “coming out” as a gay woman and facing other people’s prejudices or overcoming her fear of speaking up as the only female Hispanic woman in the boardroom to facing her fear of retiring from Johnson & Johnson to go out on her own, she is able to inspire and ask for the same courage from others. “It’s not about being fearless,” says Torres. “It’s about being courageous. It’s about being audacious enough to be yourself.”
The future is bright for Torres, as it is for the people who come into contact with her. Leaving her executive role at Johnson & Johnson, she founded The Mentoring Place, which provides career mentoring for women and does so free of charge. Her podcast Flip the Tortilla, which aims to inspire other women in their 20s to 40s to succeed by embracing themselves, has just launched. This is just the beginning for Torres. “I’m excited about today and I’m even more excited about what tomorrow will bring and what I can do to bring a better tomorrow.”